Researchers in the University of Arizona's department of agricultural and biosystems engineering recently reaped the reward of six years of planning, testing and trials and harvested 40 acres of experimental sweet sorghum at the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Red Rock Agricultural Research Center.

Known as the sugarcane of the desert, sweet sorghum could be a sustainable and ecological future biofuel crop for Arizona – and there will be one, said Dennis Ray, a plant geneticist in the UA's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences: "There's no doubt that we're going to have biofuels in the future because no matter what, petroleum is a finite resource."

As versatile in their function and application as traditional fuels, biofuels developed from biomass such as sugar or grain crops or algae could become widely used in the future as a source of power for a range of technologies, including homes, automobiles, industrial factories and airplane engines.

"Sweet sorghum is a tall grass, and it grows to about 3-4 meters," said Mark Riley, professor and head of the UA's department of agricultural and biosystems engineering. "It can grow in about 110-120 days, and it produces a substantial amount of ethanol. We think we can get 500-600 gallons of ethanol per acre – generally for corn you get about 300 gallons of ethanol per acre."

"We first started working with sweet sorghum about five or six years ago," said Don Slack, a professor in the UA's department of agricultural and biosystems engineering and co-principle investigator of the sorghum project along with Colin Kaltenbach, who is vice dean of the UA's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of the Arizona Agricultural Experiment Station.

"In the fall of 2009 we got a large grant from the Department of Energy for a sweet sorghum alternative fuel and feed pilot project."

The researchers then began growing experimental crops of sweet sorghum at the UA's Red Rock Agricultural Research Center near Marana, Ariz.